The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagerkrantz

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Reviewed by Harriet

Reading continuations of series by celebrated dead authors is always going to be a bit of a gamble. I’ve had some less than great experiences, notably with Jane Austen (though I loved Longbourn) and more recently with Nelly Dean (she of Wuthering Heights), which I couldn’t finish. But sometimes they work exceedingly well – I was hugely impressed with Benjamin Black’s recreation of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Black-Eyed Blonde and Shiny reviewer Falaise enjoyed the James Bond sequel by William Boyd. So, as a fan of Steig Larsson, I was curious to see what David Lagerkrantz, a much less well-known author (outside Sweden anyway), would make of Lisbeth Salander and her world.

Well, while this is a slimmer volume than the three bulky Millenium novels, and though it perhaps does not quite measure up to their intensity, I read it with pleasure. It’s always a bit sad to realise that you’re never again going to meet characters you’ve grown fond of, or fascinated by, and so it was good to encounter Mikael Blomkvist, Erika Berger, Holder Palmgren, and of course Lisbeth herself, after an absence of more than ten years. They are all certainly still recognisable, though Blomkvist, who is rather tired and depressed throughout most of the novel, seemed a little less vivid than he used to be.

But what of the plot, I hear you ask? Well, it is satisfyingly complex, and touches on fascinating issues both of technology and of psychology. The technology will come as no surprise, as Lisbeth, the hacker supreme, has been helping the Hacker Republic to gain access to the NSA’s secure servers. The success of this project has infuriated the NSA, who have sent their top investigator to Sweden to try to track her down. Meanwhile, a top scientist, Frans Balder, has returned to Sweden from the US to take care of his autistic son August. Desperately anxious that someone will steal his unique and hugely important formula, he manages to destroy all evidence of it before he is murdered in front of seven-year-old August. The boy, who has always been withdrawn, has never spoken, but he now starts to produce amazingly accurate drawings in which the murderer’s face appears, and strings of mathematical formulas unrecogniseable to non-mathematicians. Realising that the child’s life is in danger, Blomkvist, who is writing an article about Balder, manages to contact Lisbeth, who takes August away to a secret and supposedly secure location, where together they start to crack seemingly insoluble equations. But their safety is threatened by a group of terrifying criminals, led by a woman known as Thanos, who proves to have a strong connection with Lisbeth herself….

With me so far? That’s all I’m going to tell you, but perhaps you can see how interesting some of these ideas are. I have always been fascinated by what’s now known as savant syndrome – which as you know is a term for a condition in which the sufferer, if that’s the word, is either autistic or suffering from brain damage, but has, usually, one exceptional skill. Being able to tell you in a second what day of the week some date fell on (’13 December 1564′ ‘Tuesday’) is the most common, but there are savants who can play music, draw, and do mathematics, and perhaps other things as well. August’s abilities in the novel reminded me very much of Stephen Wiltshire, who can create perfect reproductions of buildings and indeed whole cities, having seen them only once. But what makes August so exceptional is that he can draw and also do math, which is almost unheard of. Of course Lisbeth herself surely falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, though this has never been spelled out, so their relationship, which becomes pretty close, is fascinating and touching to witness.

So yes, I’m definitely recommending this novel. I’ll leave you with a surprisingly astute comment from the NSA investigator who is seeking Lisbeth (who he knows only as Wasp):

I know what it’s like to see extreme violence at close quarters. And I know what it’s like when society doesn’t lift a finger to punish the guilty party. It hurts like hell, and I’m not at all surprised that most children who experience it go under. They turn into destructive bastards themselves….But just a few grow to be strong as bears, Mikael, and they stand up and fight back. Wasp was one of those, wasn’t she.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

David Lagerkrantz, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press: London, 2015). 978-0857059994, 448pp., hardback.

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